The Value of Non-Equilibrium

I’ve been thinking about the ideas of the chemist Ilya Prigogine. Many may remember him as a one of the three main threads in Margaret J. Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly Universe (1992, Berrett-Koehler). Wheatley learned from Prigogine that while it makes sense to stabilize machines and structures as a way to prevent deterioration, living systems (organizations) need non-equilibrium to change and grow because they exchange energy with their environments. Prigogine said living systems are “dissipative structures.” As Wheatley,  explains it, they “dissipate their energy in order to recreate themselves into new forms of organizations” (88).

In ecosystems, for example, external fluctuations in the environment exert great pressure on the system and the system uses its energy very inefficiently, but “as the ecosystem matures, it develops an internal stability, a resiliency to the environment that, in turn, creates conditions that support more efficient use of energy and protection from environmental demands”(92).

Wheatley applies these ideas to organizations. In the factory model, she says, “managers watched for departures from the norm so they could “make corrections and preserve the system at its current levels of activity”(78). Systems that are organized around core competencies but open to information from outside are less vulnerable to environmental disturbances. Their more fluid structure ultimately leads to an internal stability. As expressed by one scientist she quotes (Jantsch), “the more freedom in self-organization, the more order.”

On other words, there is much more happening  than a change in tools. Trying to impose the old factory model using new tools will not work. We need new structures that encourage openness, creativity and freedom to innovate.

What Unites Us?

Pick out ten people from the phone directory, randomly. Chances are, they will differ widely in their methods for earning a living, their career aspirations, and their educational credentials. They will each have their own interests outside of work, their own ways of making the world better, and their own unique mix of strengths and struggles. However, something unites all their diverse enterprises–all the different ways they spend their time, earn their money, and pursue their own conceptions of excellence and success. What we all share are four inter-related, lifelong human capabilities:

We dream. We learn. We create. We launch.

Those capabilities are at the root of everything we do in the world and we continually develop them and draw from them. They underpin all our efforts to plan careers, pursue jobs, improve skills, build reputations, cultivate clients, and build networks. They are with us throughout our studies and in every job we hold, as well as in all the periods of transition and change in between. They are the cornerstones of what we do to add value in our workplace and in all the communities to which we belong.  They create the framework for facing challenges, confronting change or upheaval, and dealing with what disturbs or inspires us. They contribute to our everyday, mundane activities, such as cooking or shopping, our pursuit of and escape from routine, and all our efforts to care for family, friends, community, and world. They help us cope, persevere, grow, and find joy. Regardless of occupation or location or education or wealth, every person possesses these four capabilities in some form and develops them to some degree.

Those four endeavors are powerful tools we can use to confront the changes and uncertainties of this time and to live a more rewarding, meaningful life. Most of us, however, are not using the tools at our disposal to our full advantage, nor are we sharpening them in preparation for future challenges.

How can we pursue these endeavors with greater passion, intention, and discipline?

We All Need a Sounding Board

Have you ever had an original idea or theory that you know is good–but you keep it to yourself? Maybe you sense that the people around you don’t want to hear about it or think they wouldn’t understand. Maybe you’re worried someone might take credit for it or even steal it and use it for their own profit, so you keep it to yourself. Maybe a little part of you is afraid that people will try to talk you out of it or point out a major flaw.

I get it. Carrying around a good idea can be comforting and hopeful. It can feel exhilarating to know that you have this great solution in your back pocket that you can pull out when the right opportunity comes along.

But consider what could happen if you wait for that perfect moment: It comes. You have a potential spotlight. You are at a meeting or conference or networking event with influential people who can fund or support your idea. The perfect opening comes up and all eyes are on you.

You begin talking. If you’re like me, it is unlikely that you will take full advantage of the opportunity. Maybe the language you use will fail to capture the magic of your idea. Maybe you will get into too much detail about aspects that are not important. You finish knowing that your audience probably doesn’t understand the key point you wanted to convey, maybe even has the wrong idea of what you are presenting. If they ask questions, you may not be prepared to answer clearly. Your time is up. You know that if you start trying to correct their errors they will lose interest.

With your think pond, you can present your idea early and see how different people react. You can role play and practice so that when your time to shine arrives, you will confidently state your idea in language that hits the right notes. You have already answered many of the potential questions that will arise and maybe even defended your idea powerfully.

Moreover, you know there are people–somewhere out there–who believe.

Mentoring for a New World

Mentoring relationships can change lives. But does mentoring always have to follow the same pattern? What we need to learn and how we can best learn it changes throughout our lives, and often we find ourselves challenged in very different ways at the same time.

Although there is much to be said for the lifelong bonds that can form when a seasoned professional takes a young person under his or her wing, the younger generations also can mentor their elders. I believe everyone has something to offer and something to learn. Moreover, some people might benefit more from a series of mentors. At one age, we might need a mentor to build our confidence and help with how we present ourselves while later it might be a good thinker who can help us consider all the angles as we make big decisions. At various times, we may need one mentor to help us master a discipline or profession, another who has connections that will help us identify and get selected for opportunities, and another who helps us see the big picture. Some of us may need mentors to help us with relatively small and peripheral but still important area of our careers.

Imagine an engineer, She works in casual clothes every day but may need someone with good fashion sense to help her look good for a professional presentation and someone else to give her tips for presenting. She may also need a mentor who helps her step out of her comfort zone in an area like writing for publication. She may need a mentor who helps her make her way when she is the only young person or the only female on a project team and another who helps her when the time comes to become a team leader—or to make the transition into upper management. She may need a mentor when she has her first child—someone who is an expert at balancing work and mothering or someone who is the kind of mother she wants to be.

No single individual could provide all those mentoring relationships.